Having just covered the Daddy of all banned #1s, ‘Relax’, I thought I’d take a short pause to look at which of our 530 previous chart-toppers had been banned for one reason or another.
By ‘banned’ I mean ‘banned by the BBC’, as I think that’s probably the best barometer of overall public taste and opinion in the UK. And rather than divide the post by song titles, I’ve divided it by the reasons the records were banned. Starting with…
Such a Night, by Johnny Ray – a #1 in 1954, and one of my favourite pre-rock chart-toppers. It was banned because of Ray’s ‘suggestive panting’, as he recalls a night of wild abandon with an unamed person. (Ray was gay, and so he technically sent an ode to gay sex to #1 a full thirty years before Frankie Goes to Hollywood.) Read my original post here.
Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus, by Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin – a strong contender for the most controversial #1 ever, alongside ‘Relax’. Leave it to a Frenchman to record this steamy slice. Rumour has it that the ‘suggestive panting’ here is an actual live orgasm, as the randy old goat defiled English rose Jane Birkin in the studio. (Gainsbourg denied this by claiming that if it had been live sex, then the record would have had to have been a long player… Ooh lalala!) Live or not, this record was so good it came twice. To the singles chart, that is… It originally made #2 in the spring of 1969, before being re-released in the autumn and reaching its ultimate climax. (Original post here.)
Answer Me, by Frankie Laine / Hold My Hand, by Don Cornell / The Garden of Eden, by Frankie Vaughan – the fact that these three records were banned might sound completely ridiculous to modern ears. But in the 1950s people – or the Beeb, at least – blanched at the mere mention of Our Lord in a pop song. Frankie Laine made light of praying with the line Answer me, Lord above… (When David Whitfield came to record his own chart-topping version, he changed the words to Answer Me, Oh my love…) Don Cornell and Frankie Vaughan meanwhile compared acts of love to being in the Garden of Eden. Saucy stuff for the mid-fifties. Here’s Vaughan’s hit from 1957, which was actually a bit of a banger by pre-rock standards:
MURDER!! and PROSTITUTES!!
Mack the Knife, by Bobby Darin – originally written for Berthold Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ in the thirties, Bobby Darin’s recording is nowadays seen as the definitive version of ‘Mack the Knife’. No matter that the references to murder and prostitution were softened considerably – ‘cement bags’ and ‘scarlet billows’ for example – the BBC still thought it was a bit too heavy for radio.
Tell Laura I Love Her, by Ricky Valance / Ebony Eyes, by The Everly Brothers / Johnny Remember Me, by John Leyton – One of the stranger musical movements of the 1960s was the popularity of ‘death-discs’ in the very earliest years of the decade. They usually involved a young couple, a tragic accident, and an untimely end… Three such ‘splatter platters’ made it to #1 in the UK, the best of which was the Joe Meek produced ‘Johnny Remember Me’. The BBC banned them on the grounds that they were ‘morbid’ – which I guess is true – and ‘nauseating’ – which is most definitely true in the case of the awful ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’.
Nut Rocker, by B. Bumble & the Stingers – I’m stretching things a bit here, as this record was never actually banned. However, the BBC did put it to a review, as this 1962 #1 was a rock ‘n’ roll take on the march from Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’, and Auntie took a dim view of frivolous parodies of much more worthy classical pieces. In the end the board decided that the record was clearly of ‘an ephemeral nature’ and was ‘unlikely to offend reasonable people’. B. Bumble lived to sting another day. (Original post here.)
Space Oddity, by David Bowie – Bowie’s first chart hit was this classic, released just five days before the Apollo 11 mission launched in July 1969. The world was on tenterhooks, waiting to see if Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would make it to the moon and back in one piece. The BBC felt that this song, in which a solitary Major Tom floats in his tin can towards oblivion, his circuits dead and something wrong, went against the optimistic public mood. The ban only lasted until the astronauts had splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. The single made #5, and eventually #1 when re-released in 1975. (Original post here.)
Waterloo, by ABBA – Yes. ‘Waterloo’ by ABBA has indeed been banned by the BBC. During the first Gulf War, it was one of sixty-seven songs banned from the airwaves for alluding, however obliquely, to military conflict. The idea that a metaphor involving a tempestuous romance and Napoleon’s last stand could unsettle the general public in a time of war seems laughable, but the Beeb played it safe. Also banned at the time were Blondie’s ‘Atomic’, Paper Lace’s ‘Billy – Don’t Be a Hero’ and… Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’.
The BBC doesn’t officially ‘ban’ songs anymore, it just doesn’t play them. The last big controversy involved The Prodigy’s ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ in the late ’90s, which was only played as an instrumental. In recent years, controversy over radio stations editing, or not editing, a certain term from ‘Fairytale of New York’ has become something of a festive tradition in the UK. Last I heard, Radio 1 were playing an edited version, while Radio 2 were sticking with the original.
Any official ‘ban’ on a song nowadays would be quite pointless, with streaming services and YouTube at our fingertips, and the BBC seems to have given up its role as arbiters of public decency. Anyway, the fact that all these banned records made #1 anyway is probably quite telling. At best, a ban did very little. At worst, it actually boosted sales through all the people popping down HMV to see what all the fuss was about.
Next up, we return to the regular countdown, with a song about nuclear armageddon. That was never, as far as I’m aware, banned…
7 thoughts on “!!Banned #1s Special!!”
Yet again we live and learn, thank you for the sterling research! The BBC used to say sometimes rather unconvincingly that it never banned records, it just gave them ‘restricted airplay’ (unless it was ‘a record by Max Romeo’ in 1969, or ‘a record by Wings’ in 1972 when the artist had to be namechecked in the Radio 1 chart countdowns). It may have been rumour, but I think I heard somewhere at the time that R1 was reluctant to play ‘The ballad of John and Yoko’ for the same reasons as an Australian TV show censored film performances and thus drew viewers’ attention to it far more than just letting it slip by. Imagine the disappointment of record buyers who dashed out to buy a copy and then played it to find it was something comparatively tame after all… Oh, and the TOTP ban on ‘Relax’ was a thing of the past by Christmas 1984 when it came to the festive ‘biggest hits of the year’ editions if I remember rightly.
Thanks! Yes, even when ‘banned’ I think ‘Relax’ could still be played after 9pm, by John Peel and the like. They still do it – the Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson ‘tributes’ of recent years were, I presume, completely skipped over on chart shows… And some rap songs must get radio-edited until they’re almost unrecognisable. They just don’t make as much of a song and dance about doing it anymore.
great post! I had no idea about Abba being banned. Or the ‘splatter platters’ – love that moniker!
An to even consider B Bumble & the Stingers, well …. !!!
The ABBA ban is the best one… It just goes to show how much society has changed since the charts began. Amazing to think that seventy years ago the thought of saying ‘Oh Lord’ in a pop song was too much for some…
Banned usually meant more sales…whenever they ban a song all they do is draw more attention to it. ABBA getting banned is hilarous…David Bowie getting banned for that is so stupid…well most of them are stupid.
I love the terminology…”randy old goat”, “this record was so good, it came twice”, “splatter platters”…😆
Mack the Knife should stay banned. If it’s lounge-lizardy, toss it (which might wipe out a large portion of Sinatra & Streisand).
It took me a while to figure out what “not on the beeb” meant.
Thanks! I can’t take the credit for ‘splatter platters’, as I think that’s what DJs at the time called those ‘death discs’…
Tenterhooks is… a saying. I think it’s a hook for drying things, meaning you’re up in the air, uncertain.
Oh, and ‘Mack the Knife’ is great. All time classic for me! : )